I first published this essay back in August 2015. But it seemed worth revisiting on this Labor Day Holiday.
As the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.5% and less in recent months, the arguments over jobs have shifted from the lack of available jobs to the qualities of the jobs that are available. It\’s interesting to me how our social ideas of what constitutes a \”good job\” have a tendency to shift over time. Joel Mokyr, Chris Vickers, and Nicolas L. Ziebarth illuminate some of these issues in \”The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?\” which appears in the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. All articles from JEP going back to the first issue in 1987 are freely available on-line compliments of the American Economic Association. (Full disclosure: I\’ve worked as Managing Editor of the JEP since 1986.)
One theme that I found especially intriguing in the Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth argument is how some of our social attitudes about what constitutes a \”good job\” have nearly gone full circle in the last couple of centuries. Back at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and into the 19th century, it was common to hear arguments that the shift from farms, artisans, and home production into factories involved a reduction in the quality of work. But in recent decades, a shift away from factories and back toward decentralized production is sometimes viewed as a decline in the quality of work, too. Here are some examples:
For example, one concern from the time of the original Industrial Revolution was that factory work required scheduling their time in ways that removed flexibility. Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth (citations omitted) note: \”Workers who were “considerably dissatisfied, because they could not go in and out as they pleased” had to be habituated into the factory system, by means of fines, locked gates, and other penalties. The preindustrial domestic system, by contrast, allowed a much greater degree of flexibility.\”
Another type of flexibility in the time before the Industrial Revolution is that people often had the flexibility to combine their work life with their home life, and the separation of the two was thought be worrisome: \”Part of the loss of control in moving to factory work involved the physical separation of home from place of work. While today people worry about the exact opposite phenomenon with the lines between spheres of home and work blurring, this disjunction was originally a cause of great anxiety, along with the separation of place-of-work from place-of-leisure. Preindustrial societies had “no clearly defined periods of leisure as such, but economic activities, like hunting or market-going, obviously have their recreational aspects, as do singing or telling stories at work.”
Of course, some common modern concerns about the quality of jobs is that many jobs lack regular hours. Many workers may face irregular hours, or no assurance of a minimum number of hours they can work. Moreover, many jobs now worry that work life is intruding back into home life, because we are hooked to our jobs by our computers and phones. Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth write:
\”Even if ongoing technological developments do not spell the end of work, they will surely push certain characteristics of future jobs back toward pre-factory patterns. These changes involve greater flexibility in when and where work takes place. Part and parcel of this increase in flexibility is the breakdown of the separation between work and home life. The main way in which flexibility seems to be manifesting itself is not through additional self-employment, but instead through the rise of contract firms who serve as matchmakers, in a phenomenon often driven by technology. For example, Autor (2001) notes that there was a decline in independent contractors, independent consultants, and freelancers as a portion of the labor force from 1995 to 1999—peak years for expansion of information technology industries—though there was a large increase in the fraction of workers employed by contract firms. The Census Bureau’s counts “nonemployer businesses,” which includes, for example, people with full-time employment reported in the Current Population Survey but who also received outside consulting income. The number of nonemployer businesses has grown from 17.6 million in 2002 to 22.7 million in 2012. In what is sometimes called the “sharing economy,” firms like Uber and AirBnB have altered industries like cab driving and hotel management by inserting the possibility of flexible employment that is coordinated and managed through centralized online mechanisms. …
[C]ertain kinds of flexibility have become more prevalent since 2008, particularly flexibility with regard to time and place during the day, making it possible for workers to attend to personal or family needs. On the other side, flexibility can be a backdoor for employers to extract more effort from employees with an expectation that they always be accessible. … Also, flexibility can often mean variable pay. The use of temp and contract workers in the “on-demand” economy (also known as contingent labor or “precarious workers”) has also meant that these workers may experience a great deal of uncertainty as to how many hours they will work and when they will be called by the employers. Almost 50 percent of part-time workers receive only one week of advance notice on their schedule.\”
Another a fairly common theme of economists writing back in the 18th and 19th centuries ranging from Adam Smith to Karl Marx was that the new factor jobs treated people as if they were cogs in a machine.
\”Adam Smith (1776, p. 385) cautioned against the moral effects of this process, as when he wrote: “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations . . . generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” Karl Marx, more well-known than Smith as a critic of industrialization, argued that the capitalist system alienates individuals from others and themselves. … For Marx and others, it was not just that new factory jobs were dirty and dangerous. Jeffersonian encomiums aside, the pastoral life of small shop owners or yeoman farmers had not entailed particularly clean and safe work either. Instead the point was that this new work was in a deeper way unfit for humans and the process of covert coercion that forced people into these jobs and disciplined them while on the job was debasing.\”
Now, of course, there is widespread concern about a lack of factory jobs for low- and middle-skilled workers. Rather than worrying about these jobs being debasing or unfit for humans, we worry that there aren\’t enough of them.
I guess one reaction to this evolution of attitudes about \”good jobs\” is just to point out that workers and employers are both heterogenous groups. Some workers put a greater emphasis on flexibility of hours, while others might prefer regularity. Some workers prefer a straightforward job that they can leave behind at the end of the day; others prefer a job that is full of improvisation, learning on the fly, crises, and deadlines. To some extent, the labor market lets employers and workers match up as they desire. There\’s certainly no reason to assume that a \”good job\” should be a one-size-fits-all definition.
A second reaction is that there is clearly a kind of rosy-eyed nostalgia at work about the qualities of jobs of the past. Many of us tend to focus on a relatively small number of past jobs, not the jobs that most people did most of the time. In addition, we focus on a few characteristics of those jobs, not the way the jobs were actually experienced by workers of that time.
But yet another reaction is that the qualities of available jobs aren\’t just a matter of negotiation between workers and employers, and they aren\’t an historical inevitability. The qualities of the range of jobs in an economy are afffected by a range of institutions and factors like the human capital that workers bring to jobs, the extent of on-the-job training, how easy it is for someone with a series or employers or irregular hours to set up health insurance or a retirement account, rules about workplace safety, rules that impose costs on laying off or firing workers (which inevitably makes firms reluctant to hire more regular employees), the extent and type of union representation, rules about wages and overtime, and much more. I do worry that career-type jobs offering the possibility of longer-term connectedness between a worker and an employer seem harder to come by. In a career-type job, both the worker and employer place some value on the expected continuance of their relationship over time, and act and invest resources accordingly.